Program on International Policy

Education Brief

(Oct. 2000)

Public Wants Federal Government to Play Active, But Not Punitive, Role in Strengthening Public Schools

  • Opposes Using Tests as Basis for Withholding Federal Funds
  • 50% Support for Vouchers Plunges to 24% if Money Taken From Public Schools
  • Wants Federal Government to Ensure Minimum Level of Spending Per Pupil

Summary: A new study by the Center on Policy Attitudes (COPA) reveals that the American public is looking to the federal government to play an active, but not punitive, role in strengthening public schools. There is strong support for a federal role in testing, but the majority opposes using such tests as a basis for withholding federal funds from schools that perform poorly. While about half support the idea of vouchers, this support collapses if the money is to be taken away from the existing public school budget. A strong majority believes the federal government should ensure at least a minimum level of spending per pupil in public schools, with nearly half saying the government should ensure an equivalent level of spending for all students. Overall, support for increased spending is strong. Education ranks as the top issue that Americans say will influence their vote in the 2000 election.

These findings are derived from a nationwide poll of 650 randomly selected Americans conducted from June 23-July 9, 2000. The results were weighted to reflect national demographics. The margin of error is +/- 3.8%. For a complete copy of the questionnaire, go to the COPA website at www.policyattitudes.org.

Findings

1. While there is strong support for federally sponsored testing, only a small minority favors using test scores as a basis for withholding federal funds from schools that test poorly.

Other polls have found support for federally sponsored testing. For example, a June 1998 Gallup poll found that 71% favored the federal government setting up a national testing program to be administered in the fourth and eighth grades.

However, only a very small minority supports the idea of using test scores as a basis for withholding federal funds from schools that test poorly.

Some people have proposed that there should be national tests so we can know how students in each school are doing as compared to students in the country as a whole. If this information is gathered, what do you think the federal government should do about schools whose students score well below the national average? Should the government… [random order]

…Withhold Federal funds from these schools to put pressure on them to improve,
…Get directly involved in trying to improve the schools, spending more federal money if necessary, OR
…Notify the state and the local school board that there is a problem, and let them decide what to do.

Withhold federal funds
13%
Get directly involved
30%
Notify local school board
52%
Don't do tests; do nothing (Vol.)
2%
Don’t Know
2%

2. Approximately half favor vouchers for private and religious schools; however, this support drops to a small minority if this would result in money being diverted from public schools. If a voucher program were to be instituted, only a minority would favor having the voucher be equal to the cost of private schools, while a majority would favor having the value be equal to the savings to the public school from having one less student.

When first presented a question on vouchers, a plurality favors them:

Do you favor or oppose establishing a school voucher program that would allow parents to use tax funds to send their children to a private school?
Favor
50%
Oppose
45%
Don’t Know
6%

However, only half of those who favor it would do so if the money for vouchers is taken out of the existing public school budget. Those who said they favored vouchers were asked:

Please tell me which of the following statements you most agree with:

A. I would support vouchers even if the money to pay for them is taken out of the existing public school budget.
B. I would only support vouchers if the money to pay for them does not come out of the existing public school budget.

Statement A
48% [24% of full sample]
Statement B
48% [24% of full sample]
Both/doesn't matter (Vol.)
1%
Don’t Know
3%

Thus only one out of four said they would support vouchers if the money were to come from the existing public school budget.

Respondents were also asked about the monetary value of school vouchers. Here again, the majority expressed the view that vouchers should not harm the public schools.

Suppose that the federal government does institute a school voucher program. I'd like to know how much you think a voucher for each child should be worth. Here are two options.

A. It should be equal to the full average cost of sending the child to a private school.
B. It should be equal to the amount that the public school would save by having one less child to educate.

Option A
33%
Option B
54%
In between (Vol.)
1%
Don’t Know
9%
Refused
3%

3. A strong majority believes the federal government should ensure at least a minimum level of spending per pupil in public schools. Nearly half say that the government should ensure an equivalent level of spending for all students.

Respondents were presented the following question:

Currently, there is some debate about whether or not the federal government should ensure a certain level of funding in public schools. Here are three positions on the issue. Please tell me which comes closest to your view: The federal government... [random reverse order]

A. ...should ensure that the level of spending per pupil is roughly EQUIVALENT in all public schools.
B. ...should ensure at least a BASIC level of spending per pupil in all public schools.
C. ...should NOT be involved in trying to set spending levels in public schools.

Statement A
47%
Statement B              
28%
Statement C
22%
Don’t Know
2%
Refused
1%

Those who chose statement B were also asked a follow-on question: “Do you think the federal government is doing enough to ensure the basic level of spending for all schools, or do you think the federal government should be doing more?” Of this group, only 26% (7% of the full sample) said they were doing enough, while 67% (19% of the full sample) said they should do more.

Other polls have also found strong support for the idea that the federal government should play the role of equalizing educational opportunity. In a June 1998 Lake Snell Perry poll, 80% found convincing the argument that:

If there are no federal standards, then children in different states will not have the same access to the same opportunities and they will be unable to reach their full potential. We need to ensure that every child in America has a quality public education and the opportunity to succeed.

In the same poll, 64% said the federal government should play a “strong role,” and 23% said it should play a “somewhat strong role,” in “working to ensure an equal opportunity to education for all students.”

4. A strong majority supports increased funding of education, even though a large plurality is aware that funding for education has been going up.

Respondents were presented the following question:

Thinking now about what you want to have happen in the future, do you think in the next 5 years overall spending on education in the US should go up, go down, or stay about the same? [IF UP OR DOWN] Would that be (up/down) a great deal, somewhat, or just a little?
Up a great deal
42%
Up somewhat
26%
Up just a little
7%
Stay the same
15%
Down just a little
2%
Down somewhat
3%
Down a great deal
3%
Don’t Know/Refused
2%
 
Total Up
75%
Total Same  
15%
Total Down
8%

This support for increased funding was strong even though a plurality recognizes that funding for education has been going up during the last five years.

Is it your impression that, over the last 5 years, overall spending on education in the US has been going up, going down, or staying about the same? [IF UP OR DOWN] Would that be (up/down) a great deal, somewhat, or just a little?
Up a great deal
16%
Up somewhat
16%
Up just a little
9%
Staying the same
28%
Down just a little
3%
Down somewhat
11%
Down a great deal
12%
Don’t Know
7%
Total Up
40%
Total Same
28%
Total Down
25%

In a recent COPA/Knowledge Networks poll, respondents were presented the discretionary federal budget and asked how they would allocate it. On average, federal spending on education was increased by 44%; and 69% of respondents increased education by taking some funds away from other categories.

Other polls have also found support for increasing funding of education. A March 2000 ABC News/Washington Post poll found 75% saying federal spending on education should be increased a great deal (42%) or somewhat (23%). In an August 2000 Gallup poll, 67% said they would be willing to “pay higher taxes in order to improve the quality of education in your local school district.”

5. Education is the top priority among voters for the 2000 election.

Respondents were asked about the relevance of the candidates’ positions on various issues in the context of the upcoming election. Education scored the highest of the four that were tested.

I'm going to read you several topics that may be discussed and debated during the upcoming election. In the context of your making a decision to vote for one candidate or another, please tell me how important it is to you to know each of the following things. For each one, answer on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 meaning not at all important and 10 meaning extremely important.
A candidate's position on education
Mean 8.52
A candidate's position on health care
Mean 8.35
A candidate's position on Social Security
Mean 8.12
A candidate's position on foreign policy and defense
Mean 7.27

Other polls also have found strong majorities placing education high on American’s list of concerns. In an ABC/Washington Post poll, asked “How important will...improving education and the schools... be to you in deciding how to vote in the 2000 presidential election in November,” 77% said it would be very important, and another 17% said it would be somewhat important. In an August CNN/USA Today poll, asked “How important the candidates' positions on [education]… will be in influencing your vote for president?” 50% said it would be extremely important, and 41% said it would be very important.

 
Education Questionnaire >>

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